Presidential Candidates’ Positions on Education, Part 2: How the Rhetoric Fits with Reality

Last week I posted a summary of the presidential candidates’ positions on public education based on reviewing their Web sites. This week I am offering my opinion on some of the issues they raised.

Some say the federal government needs to stay out of education. It got involved in a big way in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty. That’s when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed (ESEA). That law authorized important funding to support children who for a variety of reasons struggle to learn. It still does. It was reauthorized over the years, including in December of 2015. This new version – the Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) – addresses some of the complaints about the rigid structure of accountability systems.

The best part is that ESSA was a bipartisan effort, demonstrated by the fact that Kentucky’s U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and Louisville’s U.S. Representative John Yarmuth both supported it. Presidential candidates should look to this as an example of working together to make something better.

Furthermore, the federal government steps in to protect students’ civil rights in a variety of ways, as well. I believe the federal government has a role and should continue to provide essential resources and to ensure equity in all facets of education.

Politicians without explanation often criticize the Common Core State Standards, as if they were a federal mandate. Here’s an explanation: these national standards were designed based on global standards by the associations of the chief state school officers and state governors, with business support, in response to the need to raise standards in all states. They are not a requirement of the U.S. Department of Education. Kentucky adopted them early (the majority of states now have) and teachers worked hard to learn and implement them. Now, the Commonwealth is tailoring them with input from educators and the public.

Some candidates commented on the U.S. rankings on international tests. The U.S. has scored in the average range among countries in reading, math and science on the PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment). There are explanations for that, and plenty that can be done to improve. In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers the tests, suggests, “An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains also in PISA.”

The issue of this era is school discipline policies and practices. It is often referred to as the School-to-Prison pipeline or by calling for Restorative Justice practices. We know that students bring all kinds of troubles into the school building, affecting their academic performance and often their behavior. We also know that discipline should be fair and offer a chance for improvement. To really address children’s behavior so they can learn and find success in society, additional resources are needed. Teachers can’t handle it all alone. An illustration of the lack of resources is the comparison of the recommended student-to-counselor ratio, which is 250 to 1, and the actual number in Kentucky, which is 456 to 1. Studies show that increases in guidance counselors reduce the probability of discipline recurrence. More counselors are needed. Mental health staff is needed; Family Resource Centers must be funded well. We cannot just command schools quit disciplining kids.

Presidential candidates and many others promote early childhood programs. This is another area where there is bipartisan support. Years ago, I heard former superintendent Dr. Stephen Daeschner speak on the subject, and he said he would shift school to start at age 3, with an earlier graduation date. There are promising results from offering quality preschool. And I expect there will be significant bipartisan agreement on this.

Candidates call for choice and competition in education, but in states where that is offered, success isn’t guaranteed. Competition suggests winners and losers, and there have been plenty of losers. The important thing is to look at what works in all settings. Implement best practices, so that every door of a public school opens to opportunity and success.

Some candidates recognized the importance of supporting teachers. That is essential. In Finland, the mantra is “We trust our teachers.” That country also has very high standards for teachers. Once they are on the job, they are listened to and respected. The country’s education success is the result of a decades-long focus on the development and support of teachers. This is a lesson in the importance of respecting the teaching profession.

In preparing this blog post, I read the summary of the U.S. international test results and found this on the OECD Web site:

“Socio-economic background has a significant impact on student performance in the United States, with some 15 percent of the variation in student performance explained by this, similar to the OECD average. Although this impact has weakened over time, disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs.”

There’s no program or mandate that is going to address student engagement, drive, motivation and self-belief so that they achieve more. Positive human relationships that emphasize encouragement and inspiration are the answer, along with respected and supported educators and schools.

A change in attitude has to start at the top. National figures should not lead by criticizing. That attitude sets a tone for discouragement.

Here’s my platform: Build up public education. Don’t tear it down. We have a great legacy of working to reach all children so they reach their potentials. We can start there.

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